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Date: 04/12/13

Viva Zappa!

Twenty years ago today, as announced by his family, "Composer Frank Zappa left for his final tour".

Frank Zappa. Zappa the iconoclast. Zappa the chronicler of "life on the road". Zappa the gloriously dirty-minded. Zappa the fan of early rock'n'roll and doo-wop. Zappa the vicious satirist. Zappa the social commentator and political activist. Zappa the guitar hero. Zappa the - yes - the composer, of rock-outs, wig-outs and gross-outs, of jazz-flecked and soul-inflected showcases for his own talents and for those of the top-notch musicians he insisted on having around him, of complex neo-classical pieces showing the influences of Stravinsky and Varèse. Zappa the determinedly unconventional. Zappa the gadfly on the carcass of pretention.

All these Zappas in one, and one who - despite Varèse's defiant cry of, "The modern-day composer refuses to die!" - succumbed to prostate cancer on 4 December 1993, less than a month before his fifty-third birthday.

I admit that - apart from the few tracks that are more generally known, such as Baby Snakes or Valley Girl (q.v.) - I came late to Zappa. So late, in fact, that the composer himself was very nearly 'late' himself by that time. Nonetheless, once embarked upon the journey through his variegated visions, I found myself in turns amazed, amused and bemused by the many twists and turns of styles and influences to be found in his work.

There is so much breadth of musical landscape, and such depth in much of that breadth, that entire volumes could be - and have been - written about it. At which point, I would like to do the opposite of something which I quite often do here on various subjects, and warmly recommend that you don't read something.

That 'something' comprises the entire work of one Ben Watson. Watson is a writer (I use the term quite loosely) who has spent an inordinate amount of time and effort in trying to analyse Frank Zappa's work from what he claims to be a 'Marxist' perspective. There may once have been a promising writer in there trying to get out; unfortunately, that writer was long since starved to death within the prison-house of Mr Watson's ideological obsessions, and the resultant corpse merely gives off a strong odour of the self-regarding Trot. Someone really should have got hold of him at an early age and, taking him gently but firmly by the throat, pointed out that larding your text - every paragraph, almost every sentence - with quotations from, or references to, Adorno does not make you come across as being deeply philosophical and significant; it makes you come across like the worst sort of upper-sixth-form pretentious twat.

(Those who side with Watson and who claim that Zappa all but offered house-room to the author need to be reminded that Zappa had a cruel sense of humour. I cannot believe that someone so infamously hard-headed could possibly have taken Watson's piffle seriously).

Anyway, to mark the twentieth anniversary, allow me to show you just a few facets of a most remarkable artist.

First up, from The Mothers Of Invention's first album Freak Out! (1965) is the blues-backed commentary on the urban strife of that time, Trouble Every Day:

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Next, from the 1967 Mothers opus Absolutely Free , we have the effervescent jam of Invocation And Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin from the Call Any Vegetable suite, complete with quote from a very well-known orchestral piece:

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We follow that with The Idiot Bastard Son from 1968's We're Only In It For The Money (the cover of which was a send up of that of Sgt. Pepper), a track which demonstrates Zappa's ability to write glorious melodies and mix them with something akin to a cut-up method of sound collage:

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Moving on, we come to the first real demonstration of Zappa's capabilities as a 'serious' musician and composer, the 1970 album Hot Rats, from which Peaches En Regalia is probably the best-known track:

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His prodigious talent for composing compelling beautiful tunes shone later the same year on Oh No/The Orange County Lumber Truck from Weasels Ripped My Flesh:

Update: The video I linked to has been pulled, and I can't find one where the studio versions are played in sequence.

We now come to a period in Zappa's music which tends to be regarded with sniffs of contempt from those who are either purists or puritans, the period with ex-Turtles vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo & Eddie), the period which has been dismissed as 'comedy music', of songs obsessed with groupies' tits and other vices, as demonstrated on Zappa's experimental movie 200 Motels (subtitled Life On The Road). Here is perhaps the most coherent section of the whole film, with the music encompassing almost all of Zappa's fields of endeavour in less than ten minutes. It starts with She Painted Up Her Face...

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Zappa's next incarnation was, somewhat surprisingly, as a guitar god. Here he is in 1984, carving his 'air sculptures' in front of an enthusiastic audience on Zoot Allures:

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The playful and satirical side of FZ was still to be seen, however, and it gave him his biggest hit when he combined with his teenage daughter Moon Unit to chronicle the vapid teenage lifestyles of the affluent bimbos of the San Fernando Valley. "F'sure!"

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The last few years of Zappa's life were devoted to serious composing. In this, he was aided by the use of the Synclavier, a computer musical instrument which gave him the first real opportunity to produce the music much as he no doubt heard it in his own head. The Synclavier removed the necessity of flesh-and-blood musicians (who expected, not unnaturally, to be paid) and could play music which, at least in theory, could not be played by them.

I say 'in theory', because it turned out that even some of the most complex of Zappa's final compositions could, at least to a sufficiently satisfactory degree, be played by 'real' musos, and live at that. In 1992, Zappa was chosen as one of the featured composers at that year's Frankfurt Festival, and was approached by that city's Ensemble Modern with a view to their representing his work at the festival. The rehearsals were a great success, and although now in almost debilitating pain from the cancer, Zappa managed to appear at two performances to conduct some (but by no means all) of the pieces played by the Ensemble.

What follows is not merely an exuberant triumph on the part of the musicians, but also deeply poignant. G-Spot Tornado had originally appeared on Zappa's 1986 album Jazz From Hell as a totally computer-generated piece. Re-scored for meat musicians, its intricacies survive and gain a new organic intensity.

This was to be Zappa's last public apperance as a musician, and the crowd at the Alte Oper gave the composer a twenty-minute standing ovation. The last few seconds of the following clip are moving in the extreme, showing Zappa sitting alone backstage, in semi-darkness, his face an expression of...well, of what, precisely? Of a man who felt (as we learned later) that this had been the most fulfilling night of his musical career, but who knew too that the metronome was ticking away on his life, and the pain and exhaustion shows. It was a fitting closure to a most remarkable career and life:

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